A CEO’s No. 1 Job: Fire Yourself; No. 2: Job Shadow

There are two skills I think CEOs need to embrace heading into 2017: delegation and job shadowing, writes Managing Editor Frank Kalman.

There is perhaps no greater power a business leader has than to fire other people from their jobs. It sounds sad — and it is — but it’s true. CEOs in particular have this capability at their disposal more than anyone in a company — save for its board of directors, the only group with the authority to fire the CEO.

Still, if there’s any person a CEO should be most concerned with firing from their jobs, it should be themselves. Not sure what I mean? Let me explain.

Most corporate chief executives are control freaks. A big burden of responsibility is placed on their desks everyday, and it is incredibly difficult for many leaders to cope with that reality. This is especially the case for leaders of startups who have had control of their companies from the very beginning and watched them grow into mature, established firms.

But as firms grow, it’s increasingly important for CEOs to “fire” themselves from as many responsibilities as possible. In a company’s early days it’s reasonable to expect its founder and CEO to review every job description, interview every candidate, negotiate every contract and take out the trash at night to boot. Yet, as the firm grows over time, doing those things becomes unrealistic, but in most cases they are things that are hard for leaders to give up. After all, CEOs are used to doing things a certain way, and because it’s their company, they find it hard to relinquish that responsibility and control to others.

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Take, for instance, Joshua Reeves, the CEO of Gusto, an integrated human resources software company. As The Wall Street Journal wrote this week, as the company grew to 350 employees Reeves struggled to continue to wear all the hats he’d grown used to wearing. “Wearing five different hats is not going to scale very quickly,” he told the Journal.

Nevertheless, Reeves’ effort to “fire” himself from as many tasks as possible and delegate to others came with a sobering realization: he really didn’t understand what his people did on a granular level.

This resulted in an initiative that I think might be even more important than CEOs learning how to delegate. As the Journal writes, Reeves this past October launched an effort to shadow one person in each of the 37 teams that make up Gusto. From product design to software engineering to social media, Reeves has made the effort to spend one to 1½ hours with them each week. So far, he’s even spent time greeting the company’s guests at its reception desk.

Think “Undercover Boss” without the undercover part.

While Reeves’ story is encouraging, I highly doubt many CEOs have followed his path of shadowing their company’s employees. But there is a level of detachment that I think every leader faces, and I think it’s something that could ultimately be detrimental to their ability to lead.

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Even for larger, enterprise-sized firms, it may be worthwhile for CEOs and other C-suite leaders to make the effort to shadow certain roles. I know many leaders of large companies do indeed make their rounds in visiting employees in their various locations, but how many of them spend a few hours learning the finer points of what goes into their day-to-day jobs?

For CEOs, leading from the top may be harmful to the business. In addition to finding ways to give up as much operational responsibility as possible, it’s important for business leaders — and even some lower-level managers — to ensure that they understand what it’s like to work for their company.

Shadowing employees is not only a great way for leaders to understand their business better so they can make improved strategic decisions later, but it helps them appear more connected and human to those they interact with in the process.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s Managing Editor.

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